“Salt and Pepper to Taste” an Excerpt From “Third Coast Cuisine”

November 18, 2008 at 6:50 pm

The following is an excerpt from my recently finished and (hopefully) soon to be published cookbook, Third Coast Cuisine – Recipes From the Gulf of Mexico.

 Salt and Pepper to Taste

 

The most common spices in the world are salt and pepper. Virtually everyone has them in their pantry so what could we possibly have to learn about them? Plenty, there is more to this venerable duo than just black and white.

We will start with the misunderstood crystal. Salt has long had a bad wrap for causing a number of ailments from hypertension to cardiopulmonary disease. We have all heard for as long as we can remember that we eat way too much salt. As it turns out there is no real proof linking salt intake with the development of hypertension, high blood pressure, or cardiopulmonary disease. Nutritionists refer to this as the “salt theory” because after thirty years and millions of dollars in research we are no nearer to proving sodium chloride detrimental to our health than when the notion first surfaced. It is a good idea to cut down if you already have certain conditions, but your doctor is the best source for direction on salt consumption. Interestingly enough salt has been used to effectively treat many illnesses like Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Doctors have long advised mothers-to-be that they should consume plenty of salt as well.

Most health organizations recommend that we get at least 500 mg of sodium a day, but most Americans ingest roughly 3500 mg each day. Sounds like overkill right? Do not panic studies show that a healthy person’s body can tolerate as little as 250 mg and as much as 35,000 mg per day.

Salt has long been integral to the Gulf Coast lifestyle.  So much so that Florida’s Ritz-Carlton, Amelia Island has opened a restaurant called simply Salt.  The menu is filled with trendy haute cuisine including salts from all over the world.

Something else you may be able to find at Salt is a bottle of TABASCO® Sauce.  The nation’s top selling hot sauce is made in Avery Island, Louisiana.  One important key to TABASCO’s distinctive taste is the use of salt mined only on Avery Island.

Now that we have dispelled the rumors about salt let us delve into the variety of salts now readily available. Most of us grew up with the big tub of salt featuring a rain drenched little girl and probably still use it or one of its competitors today. Why not it is cheap and salt is salt right? Hardly. Kosher salt and sea salt can both be found readily on our grocer’s shelves. The price difference is modest but the flavor is significant. Whether you prefer a more coarse grain or a fine sprinkle you will get better flavor from your use of salt by spending just a few pennies extra. If you really get into your salt you can invest in some of the exotic offerings to be found in gourmet shops like Celtic Sea Salt from the UK and Fleur de Sel from France. These salts are exquisite in both taste and appearance. Celtic Sea Salt is actually gray rather than white and Fleur de Sel looks like tiny snowflakes.

If you like pepper and use the stuff that comes pre-ground in a little metal can then you are cheating yourself. Grinding your own pepper imparts more of the essence of pepper’s warm, nutty flavor on food. Black pepper is madefrom drying the berries of a vine indigenous to the Malabar Coast of India and just as with any dried spice or herb it is filled with essential oils that propagate the flavor. As soon as you grind the peppercorns you release the essential oils and the flavor blooms. Tragically, it soon begins to fade. This means everyday that can of ground pepper sits on the shelf it is loosing its flavor. There is a simple solution, purchase a pepper mill and grind your own peppercorns. Or better yet, grab a mortar and pestle and bash the bajeesus out of them.

There are a number of peppercorns to choose from as well. What we are used to is black peppercorns, but other popular varieties are green, pink, and white. Green peppercorns are the same berries that produce black, but in an earlier stage. Their flavor is more floral and they produce less heat. Pink peppercorns are berries from Madagascar, the island off the coast of Africa famous for its hissing cockroaches. Pinks are often used in desserts. Soaking the black peppercorn in water for a week, then removing the black outer shell produces white pepper. White pepper is preferred for Béchamels, Alfredos, and other white sauces so they do not look freckled.

Stepping up in the quality of salt and pepper you use will be reflected in the foods you prepare. This one little enhancement can be the difference between a good dish and a great one. These two spices are the foundation of cooking and as they say if you start off with a good foundation you will build a better house.

For the record jalapeños, habaneras, serranos, and the like are not peppers they are chilies. The confusion dates back to Columbus who, as part of his agreement for Queen Isabella’s sponsorship of his expedition to the New World, promised to bring back pepper from India. There was no pepper in the Bahamas in 1492, but they had chilies, which were filled with seeds that resembled pepper, sort of. Apparently 13th century royalty was rather gullible and believed old Chris when he called his discovery chili peppers.

Finally, when I refer to salt and pepper in my recipes I mean Kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper unless otherwise stated.

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Stuart Reb Donald

Stuart is a celebrity chef and award winning food writer. Donald performs live cooking demonstrations and penned the cookbook Amigeauxs - Mexican/Creole Fusion Cuisine. He hosts two Internet cooking shows "Everyday Gourmet" and "Little Grill Big Flavor."

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